Palestinian artist and art historian Kamal Boullata’s latest body of work, Bilqis, is running at Meem Gallery until July 31.The series of fifteen abstract paintings comprising five triptychs borrows its name from the name of the queen of Sheba. The exhibition takes up the myth of Bilqis’ visit to King Solomon’s court, where she mistook the glass floor for water, a Quranic legend which “inspired a new aesthetic language” for Boullata, exploring the relationship between space, symmetry and spirituality.
Here is an interview with Boullata about this recent series, and how he “uses the Fibonacci series of numbers and ancient Islamic architecture as elements of his work.” Responding to a question about whether it makes a difference if the audience if aware of the legend the works are inspired by, Boullata says:
the journey is more important than the message. Because of the research I have done, where the work is coming from is more important to me than where it is leading to. But for viewers, knowing the legend of Bilqis or its connection to Islamic art is irrelevant. The only important thing is how they react to it. If they find some beauty in it and enjoy the visual effect, that is enough.
And here Boullata speaks about these recent paintings, his childhood visits to the Dome of the Rock, and the centrality of the word as a portable tool of self-expression in Arab nomadic culture, as well as his own attempt to balance words and images, like two halves of a whole, “like wings”. He also speaks about the place of politics in art, and Palestinian art as “contaminated by politics” which does not recognise that “the history of Jerusalem was there before Palestine began.”
In each triptych, vertical and diagonal lines intersect at variable angles to create a horizontal composition. The rhythmic sequence of forms is set in accordance with a geometric formula of proportions originally evolved in tenth century Baghdad. The transparent layers of free-flowing brushstrokes are sharply delineated by the precision of hard-edged painting. The contrasting combination recalls the words of Novalis, ‘Chaos in a work of art should shimmer through the veil of order.’ The issuing contrast of overlapping forms stirs a sense of movement punctuated by intermittent flashes of light. Contrary to a perspectival illusion of space, foreground and background become interchangeable. Seeming symmetries and refractions are perceived through the interweaving of polygons and triangles whose correspondence recalls ambiguities intrinsic to geometric arabesques.